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Gotham - Damned If You Do... - Advance Preview

As the season’s not-subtle subtitle suggests, it’s all about the “Rise of the Villains” as “Gotham” returns for its second year with “Damned If You Do....” But sadly, the season premiere’s a bit of a slog, setting up some story with potential, but not particularly a blockbuster in its own right.

A month has passed since the events of the finale and things aren’t going so great for James Gordon (series star Ben McKenzie). He’s been demoted to traffic cop and his cold war with Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) is threatening to get him bounced from the department altogether. Out of options, he’s forced to consider breaking bad himself and going to the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) for help. It’s a dilemma that echoes through the hour – how much of yourself could you, and should you, destroy in the name of the greater good? In the end, the GCPD power structure gets a shakeup, but at quite a cost to Gordon.

Moving on to the bad guys, the Penguin is still getting his flippers wet as the king of the Gotham criminal underworld, with several familiar faces in his employ. But waiting in the wings is a new challenger to the throne. Theo Galavan (James Frain, “True Blood”) presents himself publicly as a businessman and philanthropist. In secret, though, he has sinister plans for the city, beginning with a selection of inmates from Arkham Asylum.

And, of course, there’s the cliffhanger to address – the discovery of a secret staircase descending into a cavern beneath Wayne Manor. It’s weirdly a minor part of the episode, and a meandering one at that, as Bruce (David Mazouz) and Alfred (Sean Pertwee) bicker over how to proceed. But Bruce does finally find something that gives him insight (if scant) into his father’s secret agenda and state of mind.

I couldn’t help feeling, as I watched the episode, that for every course correction that worked, there were familiar missteps. Case in point, Barbara (Erin Richards). While I would have been fine with them ditching the character altogether, this new, nutty version of Barbara is pretty entertaining (sample quote: “I just wanted to say that I hope you die screaming, bitch. Byeee!”) and Richards is a hoot playing it. But the show also repackages the same blandly supportive dynamic with Jim that sank her in the first place with Leslie (Morena Baccarin), just in a smaller, less awesome apartment.

I’m also still worried that the show won’t be able to service its sprawling ensemble properly, a problem it struggled with last season (poor Crispus Allen!). Bullock (Donal Logue), ostensibly the secondary lead, is only in one scene. Ditto Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), who pops up to remind us that he’s on the (extremely Two-Face-ish, don’t even get me started) road to becoming the Riddler. And that’s with three of the new series regulars off-screen entirely.

There are a number of bright spots, though. “Gotham” is really good at dry humor (there’s a priceless exchange between Gordon and a perp about the proper spelling of his name). Mazouz continues to shine as Lil’ Wayne. And while I still think it’s waaay too early in the show’s life to be playing the Joker card, Cameron Monaghan is great in the part and a potentially fun dynamic develops between Jerome and Barbara.

“Damned If You Do...,” the season premiere of “Gotham,” debuts one week from today – Monday September 21st – on FOX. Until then, speculate away about season two in the comments section.